Elspeth Barker on Jealousy, Truest of Human Vices


If the human infant is primitive so is its earliest vice, jealousy—probably the most innate vice of all. First comes love, then jealousy, an unholy, uninvited symbiosis.

Once there was a great gaunt dog called Griselda, who lay, snarling softly, in an alcove beside the blacksmith’s furnace. With clash and with clangor he shod Bonny and Beauty, colossal Clydesdales, and Griselda’s yellow eyes narrowed and flickered in the spark light. One day she had a litter of squally pups. In the late afternoon, as darkness gathered and Mr. Gould shook the sweat from his hair and damped down his fires, she ate them. You could see she did not want them.

I told my mother and she said, “No, it was Mr. Gould’s fault, they should not have been near all that noise and disturbance.” That was clearly rubbish. If it were true, why had my mother not eaten her babies? I wanted her to eat them. I stumped about shouting. She smacked me hard. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “What on earth’s the matter with you? The trouble with you is that you have a nasty jealous nature.”

How very true. I longed to be called Griselda, and it was with intense relish that I read the ballads of my native land. They have a swift way of dispensing with nuisance. “The elder came and pushed her in. / Sister o Sister, sink or swim” or the betrayed wife, Annie: “Gin my sons were seven rats / Rinnin oer the castle wall / And I mysel’ a great grey cat / I soon would worry them all.” My brother and I tried and failed to despatch one sister; for a while I considered losing others in the forest. It became obvious, not that it was wrong, but that there was no point. The world expanded and it contained greater attractions than self-laceration over siblings. Even so, the occasional frisson lingered. Contemplating a roast suckling pig in a wondrous shop in Soho, called, I think, King Bomba, I considered the possibility of my youngest sister served thus, with an apple in her mouth. I studied Euripides’s Medea with an enthusiasm which contained nostalgia; how fine a dinner I might have offered to my parents. That would have shown them.

If the infant is primitive so is its earliest vice, jealousy—probably the most innate vice of all.

Jealousy, of course, should not be confused with envy. In the teen years one may yearn to have smooth blond hair or (as in those ancient days) a dirndl skirt or divan beds with matching candlewick bedspreads, or a mother who wears white lipstick, but this is not the consumer, the passion, the “green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” The carrion beast slinks on scene again with boyfriends, husbands, or whatever one calls them. Although I have been mainly fortunate in avoiding its attentions I have experienced them and have become again a murderess. I have stood at the top of a flight of stairs ready to drop a stone cross on an unsuspecting but guilty head; only the presence of a baby against my shoulder stopped me. The monster’s only joys are violent and transitory; but its poison is all-pervading and irreversible. It is no wonder that the jealous person’s countenance is traditionally tinged with green. The only cure lies in oblivion.

Female jealousy is associated with witchery, bitchery, dementia, and underhand behavior. Its manifestations are often inventive—the abbreviation of a chap’s Armani suit or other bits, the share-out of his wine cellar, the mutilation of his motor. I know a woman who has taught her much younger husband’s beloved parrot to address him in her voice, uttering sweet blandishments, offering evening drinks. “Just so he’ll be sorry later, when he’s with someone else.”

Men seem more straightforward. They just kill the woman. You are doubtless aware, but it is worth repeating, that marriage or similar makes a woman 70 per cent more likely to meet a violent end, at the hands of himself. The word zealous and the word jealous have the same Ancient Greek origin signifying an eager rivalry, an uplifting admiration, a passion with nobility. Plato set it in opposition to envy or phthonos.

There is a handy old expression, oudeis phthonos, or as some still say, no sweat (man). Othello, literature’s great jealous man, is constantly described as noble, even when behaving in a manner that is frankly ludicrous. After endless bombast and drivel over the missing handkerchief, he goes storming off. Emilia says percipiently: “Is not this man jealous?” Desdemona is stunned: “I ne’er saw this before. Sure there’s some wonder in this handkerchief.” The noble Moor then reappears: “Handkerchief—O Devil!” (falls in a trance). Later of course he says, “Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire,” and therefore can be forgiven anything. Nonetheless, that cry of “Handkerchief” seems to me to share a little place in the great scheme with Lady Bracknell’s “Handbag.”

Personally, I eschew all that sort of thing these days and am more interested in trying to write a villanelle or discovering thirty useful things to do with radishes. The monster has shambled off over the hill, though sometimes I still see its shadow. Or not? Recently, I sat in a hospital bed, wearing a seductive hospital nightie, ashen-faced, hollow-eyed, drips and tubes tangled about me. Mad Bertha after fifty years in the grave. Someone I do not like remarked: “You’re looking ten years younger.” “How could she say that?” I screeched at my daughter. “Don’t worry, she’s just jealous,” said the beguiling nymph.

When I was little I associated jealousy with jellyfish. I often encountered these creatures while swimming in the far-from-unpolluted waters of the North Sea. I have no intention of ever again setting foot in that icy ocean; nor shall I be jealous. Jealousy, jellyfish, see if I care. Or as one might say, lemon jelly, kiss my belly.

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notes from the henhouse 9781668022153 hr

From Notes from the Henhouse: On Marrying a Poet, Raising Children and Chickens, and Writing by Elspeth Barker. Copyright © 2024. Available from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.



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